A team Royal Navy divers and mine warfare experts have deployed to the Baltic, alongside experts from 15 other nations, to tackle the unexploded bombs, mines, and torpedoes littering the waters off Estonia.
One of the mines disposed of by the British divers was a Soviet M26, the controlled detonation of which was filmed (see below). Around 17,000 M26s were sown by the Soviets in 1941 in a bid to slow German forces. In total, the Royal Navy’s Fleet Diving Unit 3 uncovered nine devices in their search area – Muhu Island.
Operating in waters with an average temperature of 8˚C, the British divers were assisted by their submersible, REMUS. The robot scans ahead of the divers, who head down to inspect contacts.
During both World Wars the Baltic became one of the most heavily mined areas on the planet, and, long after the end of the Second World War, the remaining munitions continue to pose a threat to sea traffic. The routine exercise, hosted each year by one of the Baltic states, pools expertises to deal with this wartime legacy. Across the past 20 years, clearance work has resulted in 1,200 finds off Estonia alone.
The international clearance teams also came across significantly larger finds; in June 1940 the Soviets occupied Estonia, but in August 1941 German forces had surrounded Tallinn, home to 190 ships of the Soviet Baltic Fleet. The evacuation, known as ‘Russia’s Dunkirk’ had to take place by sea, this meant that both German and Finnish forces further mined the Estonian coastline.
Soviet mine-sweeping efforts were hampered by bad weather, so the mines, combined with patrol boats, coastal artillery, and air power, caused heavy losses. Despite cover from smokescreens and a number of escorting warships, 68 evacuating vessels were lost over the four day evacuation.
Additionally, 16 warships were sunk (including five destroyers and three submarines), and shells fell on evacuees waiting in Tallinn. At least 12,000 were killed in the effort, although the Soviets succeeded in saving 160 ships and lifting 30,000 people and a considerable tonnage of equipment.
Some of those wrecks are believed to have been in this years clearance works, a collective effort by more than 800 personnel. They searched 300 square miles of the Baltic and uncovered 90 unexploded munitions.
Investigations will now take place to identify the wrecks.